My Father at 100: A Memoir
By Ron Reagan
(Viking, 228 pages, $25.95)
Chalk up another awesome insight to the Founding Fathers. When, having drafted the Constitution and seen it through to ratification, they turned their attention to filling the post of president for the first time, they selected the right man for the right reasons. The obvious choice for the job — victorious warrior, national hero, and benevolent presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention — was George Washington. Now for the awesome insight: from the founders’ perspective, Washington brought another important qualification to the table. Although already hailed as the Father of Our Country, he was childless. This headed off any dynastic threat at the pass. It also meant that there would be no Washington offspring around to embarrass the chief executive while he was in office, or to exploit his good name after he was gone. Not all subsequent presidents have been so lucky.
CONSIDER THE CASE Of Ronald Reagan. His adopted son Michael, after years of obscure hustling on the periphery of the business and political worlds, has finally eked out a niche for himself as a second-tier conservative commentator, largely by wrapping himself in the banner of his dead father with whom, for most of his life, he was not on very close terms. Maureen Reagan, the late daughter from Ronald Reagan’s first marriage to actress Jane Wyman, was a likable lightweight, a rather lusty lady whose appetite for political office — among other things — far exceeded her grasp. Her one serious bid for statewide office in California was a humiliating flop and — to the extent anyone noticed — an embarrassment to her father. Daughter Patti, by his second marriage to Nancy Davis Reagan, ended up as an aging, relatively harmless hybrid — half valley girl and half flower child — whose literary career, hanging by the slender thread of her celebrity daughter status, never really flourished. This despite her ostentatiously marketing herself as the “Un-Reagan” by writing under her mother’s maiden name as Patti Davis.
And then there is the baby of the family, Patti’s younger brother. Ron Reagan is now 52 and, as he recently admitted to interviewer Manuel Roig-Franzia, he’s still wondering “what I want to be when I grow up.” Already attempted and abandoned have been abortive careers as a ballet dancer, a television co-host on left-leaning MSNBC, and a radio talk jock on even more left-leaning Air America. In many ways, Ron Reagan is the most interesting of the late president’s children. For all their shortcomings, all four seem to have genuinely loved their affectionate but very self-contained father. But Ron Reagan is both the most articulate and the most conflicted of the Reagan offspring, an obviously intelligent, talented, but sometimes feckless character with an ego as big as it is aggrieved. In My Father at 100 all of these characteristics are on display, making for a memoir that is alternately moving and annoying, insightful and silly, but ultimately worth reading.
Unfortunately, although the book is only 228 pages long, you’ll have to fight your way through a lot of padding to get to the good parts. President Reagan isn’t even born until page 41 and much of the coverage of his illiterate, impoverished, and largely undocumented Irish ancestry is either pure conjecture or generic boilerplate, including a tediously detailed description of the potato blight that caused the “Great Hunger” and drove so many of Ireland’s most unfortunate sons and daughters to our shores. The same padding recurs repeatedly as the scene shifts to rural, horse-and-buggy America, World War I, the Roaring Twenties, and the Depression era, with the author’s father poised to leave small-town flyover country for Hollywood fame, although his son will rather grudgingly dismiss him as a “moderately famous Hollywood actor.” He also flings around a lot of negative adjectives when describing his father’s character and behavior. Words like “bizarre,” “strange,” and “peculiar” abound — words that might more accurately have described the way young Ron himself appeared to his father. Kicked out of prep school as a troublemaker, a boastful atheist, a dropout from Yale to take up ballet dancing — an art form once described by actor-musician Oscar Levant, a contemporary of the senior Reagan’s, as “baseball for fairies” — one can understand why his bewildered father once told him: “You’re my son, so I have to love you. But sometimes you make it very hard to like you.”
LIKE AUTHOR, LIKE BOOK; in many passages, My Father at 100 movingly describes Ron Reagan’s genuine if conflicted love for his father — a love many readers will feel and share. But the author also has all too many unlikable moments, sometimes spiteful, sometimes simply misguided. Here, for example, is Ron Reagan’s rather snide take on his ancestors’ collective military record:
Dad was under the impression that Jack [his hard-working but occasionally inebriated shoe salesman father] was first in line to enlist, only to be turned away because the army wasn’t taking fathers with two or more children. Jack, Dad later wrote, rued being born between war generations — too young for the Spanish-American War; too old for World War I. Perhaps. Whether willingly or not, he was part of a long Reagan family pattern of missing combat, a tradition Dad would continue — also regretfully — when World War II broke out.
No mention of the fact that “Dad” suffered from chronic myopia and was assigned by the military authorities to film army documentaries. While he wasn’t shot at, Ronald Reagan spent the war years serving his country in uniform and paying a professional price for it; his postwar civilian career in Hollywood never quite caught up with where he had left off before Pearl Harbor.
And then there’s the “A” word. The media have made much of Ron Reagan’s purely conjectural suggestion that his father was already suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease in the closing years of his presidency. His claim has been roundly refuted by medical experts and those who worked closely and continuously with President Reagan — much more closely and continuously than his son — during the period involved. As many critics have pointed out, what Ron Reagan took for symptoms of Alzheimer’s were probably the occasional bored or fatigued moments of a healthy but very elderly man who had survived an assassination attempt that deprived him of 50 percent of his blood supply and later major intestinal surgery, while occupying the most burdensome office in the modern world…and restoring American prestige and prosperity and making Mr. Gorbachev “tear down that wall.” If Ronald Reagan could accomplish all that in the early stages of Alzheimer’s it’s a damned good thing he didn’t take early retirement on disability, which his son suggests he should have.
ANYONE WITH AN EYE for physical and behavioral traits who attends a large family wedding soon notices the fascinating variations on family themes that several assembled generations of grandparents and grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews display. Each relative is a distinctly different blend of common family attributes: identical smiles on broad and narrow faces, the same walk in tall and short relatives, a distinctive ancestral complexion or eye color shared by blondes, brunettes, and redheads. Some combinations are more appealing than others, but there is always an underlying resemblance. Looking at the fairly youthful photo of Ronald Reagan that graces the cover of My Father at 100, one catches glimpses of his son Ron. But only glimpses. There is a balance to the father’s features, and an innately sunny, confident good-humored radiance to his smile and bearing that all of us who served him as president felt as well as saw. No Reagan before him combined his physical, emotional, and mental genes in quite so winning a way, nor have any of his offspring.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was an exceptionally good and talented man and an exceptionally good and talented president. Cleverer but less gifted people sometimes feel uncomfortable in the presence of such men. Sometimes they are puzzled; sometimes they are suspicious; sometimes they are envious, the way a brilliant but flawed intellectual like Thomas Jefferson was never quite comfortable in the presence of a man of stronger, purer character and judgment like George Washington. One feels that, much as he undoubtedly loves his father, Ron Reagan, in some ways a cleverer, more sophisticated person, is still discomfited by the very qualities of deep sincerity, conviction, and innate goodness that made his father such a comfort and an inspiration to millions of others.
While no Great Communicator himself, Ron Reagan has inherited some of his father’s way with words and an updated, edgier version of the ancestral Irish wit. Both qualities contribute a number of happy moments to this flawed but interesting work. He is at his best seeing his father through the unspoiled eyes of a small child and, later, sharing personal father-son moments in the pool, at the ranch, or by the sickbed. At such moments he brings to life many of his father’s most endearing qualities and, in so doing, offers us a few glimpses of his own better nature.